Essen in western Germany evokes memories of a vaunted industrial past. Home to the defunct Zollverein Industrial Complex, a coal mine turned World Heritage Site, and the Red Dot Design Museum, the area is saturated with the power of heavy industry and, symbiotically, industrial design. This association began at the start of the 19th century when Friedrich Krupp founded a steelworks, marking the beginning of a family dynasty that moulded the city's identity. Today it's known as ThyssenKrupp: it still makes steel products, but on a scale Friedrich could only dream about. The global conglomerate employs 177,000 people across 80 countries, and in 2006,it decided, rather poetically, to build a campus, ThyssenKrupp Quarter, to house employees in its spiritual home.
Such an auspicious homecoming demanded a suitably dramatic building, and ThyssenKrupp Quarter, completed in July last year, is a high-tech, a highly literal expression of the company's identity. ThyssenKrupp invited practices to submit their designs, whittling down the 105 entrants before settling on a joint plan formulated by JSWD Architekten and Chaix & Morel et Associés. Believing the answer laid in a cluster of buildings linked by repeating forms rather than a symbolic high-rise, the consortium designed ten buildings around a landscaped campus, with one, known as Q1, as a centrepiece."To do a small 'needle' of a building would be an expression of former times, when HQs were in the centre of the city," explains Jurgen Steffens of JSWD Architekten. "We decided to do a high house instead." The 'high house' is in fact a 50cu m cube, created by wrapping L-shaped volumes around a recessed glass wall. Separating these volumes by propping them on steel pillars breaks down Q1's bulk, and the voids they create on the 3rd and 10th floors are used for balconies. The whole imposing structure is dominated by 3.6m high steel sunshades on the exterior, which cover 8000sq m of the facade and were designed specifically for the project. The shades are fixed on a central vertical frame and open and close depending on the sun's rays, simultaneously reflecting light into the offices. Given the client,it was unthinkable to make them from anything but steel, says Steffens: "They are part of the corporate architecture for ThyssenKrupp and the broader development. Why should we make a proposition in aluminium, or wood?
But it's not all about steel. The uncompromising industro-corporate architecture is softened on the north and south facades by a glazed area measuring 28.1x25.6m. Comprising 96 glass panes held in place by reed-thin cables, the intention was for it to appear as a single windowpane. Though the illusion is not wholly pulled off, it nevertheless prevents the building from looking too impenetrable. This transparency continues right up to the atrium roof, where double-insulated glass is held in place by cable suspension, allowing daylight to flood into the ten-storey atrium from above. At the building's summit, JSWD removed a section from the eastern elevation between the 10th and 13th floors to create a rooftop terrace, a space that is overlookedby ThyssenKrupp's directors.The towering central atrium defines the internal space, with offices arranged either side of the void. Linking bridges span the chasm, adding drama to the humdrum journey between departments.
JSWD also incorporated meeting and breakout spaces into the walkways, ensuring the atrium did not become dead space. Offices overlooking the atrium feature full-height glazing: "There is nowhere to hide," Steffens laughs.Aware of steel's perceived coldness and keen to avoid a monochrome environment, the practice coloured the wall panels a more sympathetic honey colour. "We wanted the steel to still look like steel, so the colour was done while it was being made," says Steffens. "It has deepness to it, not just a plastic coat. We were very happy to find this finish." With so much metal onshow, the practice was at pains to humanise the interior. A light oak was used for the flooring on the bridges, brightening the space; elsewhere, plants and indoor gardens are dotted about the atrium, looking slightly displaced in such a synthetic landscape.
But this is unquestionably a monument to ThyssenKrupp's mastery of steel innovation, demonstrated by its Twin Technology elevators in the atrium: two white elevators run smoothly upand down a single shaft, but their workings remain hidden beneath shimmering steel casings. Equally high on the agenda was sustainability. ThyssenKrupp was willing to invest if the consortium could deliver a low-energy, low cost building, says Steffens, and to achieve this, they turned to geothermal heating and cooling methods. A 1,000sq m geothermal field contains loops burrowed up to 100m into the earth, transporting cool or warm water into the offices as needed. A heat recovery system recycles a high proportion of heat that would otherwise be wasted. The upshot of all this is that the temperature inside never outstrips the outdoors by more than six degrees.
The architects' efforts did not go unnoticed bythe German Sustainable Building Council (DGNB), which awarded the building a rare Gold certificate, impressive considering its expansive use of glass and steel and the tight schedule for such a sizeable undertaking – from start to finishthe whole project took three and half years.Steffens is quick to credit both client and project planner ECE for this success. "It is quite a normal process to have problems on a project this big, but the client handled these ina very good way," he says. "We talked about facts, not personal problems, so we were lucky to find a client like this." Q1, likeits nearby cousins Q2, Q5 and Q7 forming the rest of the quarter, is a testament to the potency of innovation and construction, which as Steffens points out, is also a reflection of ThyssenKrupp's thinking as a company. "This is more a political theme than architectonical. Now everybody comes to Essen and looks to this building and realises: this is ThyssenKrupp."